Open gov unleashed in a flurry of plans

President-elect Barack Obama's vision of a more open government in 2008 became a presidential directive in late 2009 and has now taken shape as a whole mess of plans. This open-government era, in which agencies overwhelm an unsuspecting public with new ideas wrapped in bureaucratic jargon, will take some getting used to.

All told, 29 agencies have published their plans for making their operations more transparent, creating opportunities for public engagement, and improving collaboration across departments and with stakeholders outside government. Last week, several agencies added their plans to the mix.

In the area of transparency, the Agriculture Department said it is developing a process for identifying and publishing existing datasets. USDA officials also envision creating an online calendar that will list the release dates for that data.

In a similar vein, the Interior Department plans to establish a formal workflow process that ensures that ideas and suggestions that come from public engagement initiatives actually reach the appropriate official.

And in the area of collaboration, the Veterans Affairs Department is instituting the VA Innovation Initiative, which will solicit ideas for improving VA services and operations from outside-the-box thinkers wherever they might be found — in the department, the private sector or academia.

Reaction to those plans was muted last week — not by a lack of interest but by the overwhelming volume of information. TechPresident blogger Nancy Scola notes that the plans come in various formats, some of which are easier to read than others. “It’s a bit of a deluge of information that is going to take some time and teamwork to sort through,” she writes.

However, an immediate cause for concern was the somewhat tentative nature of many of the provisions, which float ideas for open government rather than committing to them — what OMB Watch’s Gary Bass refers to as planning to plan.

Government watchdogs at OpenTheGovernment.org were generally impressed with the plans released last week, but the group’s final assessment is still weeks away. The organization, led by Patrice McDermott, is seeking recruits to analyze the plans in details to see how they stack up.

“This assessment is not intended to measure if an agency is in compliance with the [Open Government] Directive,” the organization's Web site states. Instead, “it is designed to allow people to quickly judge where an agency’s plan is lacking and where it excels.”

It should be noted that some agencies take some liberty with the concept of open government, such as the Transportation Department, which includes acquisition as part of its strategy. “The DOT currently engages with the public to gain expertise through contracts,” DOT's plan states. “To procure resources, we must follow the Federal Acquisition Regulation, and, in FAA’s case, the Acquisition Management System.”

Meanwhile, officials at the Treasury Department took a more reflective approach, citing the e-rulemaking and Regulations.gov initiatives launched during the Bush administration as part of its plan.

“The inconsistency in agency plans…can be maddening to those of us in the open-government community,” OMB Watch’s Bass said. However, he added, even at their worst, the open-government plans “represent solid progress toward meaningful government transparency, with many details still needed."

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